Is It Time to Give Up the Whiteboard Interview?

Ask a random selection of tech pros about their job-interviewing experiences, and chances are pretty good you won’t hear a lot of love for whiteboard interviews.

As every recruiter and employer knows, many tech companies rely on whiteboarding to judge candidates’ problem-solving abilities. At the same time, however, developers and other tech pros are used to typing code, and complain that writing it out longhand with a dry-erase marker feels weird and unintuitive.

To hear developers tell it, whiteboarding also offers precious little insight into how tech pros work through problems in the real world. For example, even the most experienced pros rely on Google in order to look up code—something they can’t do in front of a whiteboard.

“How many people can actually write BFS [breadth-first search] on the spot, without preparing for it in advance?” Sahat Yalkabov, a developer, wrote in a much-circulated Medium posting in 2016. “Again, I am not a recent college graduate anymore who has breadth-first search memorized, and aren’t my open-source projects and my prior work experience at Yahoo enough to show that I can write code and deliver software into production?”

If you ask a hiring manager or recruiter, though, whiteboarding has its uses. Watching a tech pro work a problem can provide valuable insight into how they respond to pressure and unanticipated challenges. Even if the candidate doesn’t get the right answers, the company can evaluate their process vis-à-vis other candidates, and presumably make an informed decision about who to hire.

Despite those benefits, not all companies offer whiteboard interviews, and a new (and growing) list on Github shows exactly which ones. “The companies and teams listed here instead use interview techniques and questions that resemble day-to-day work—for example pairing on a real world problem, or a paid/unpaid takehome [sic] exercise,” reads the list’s introduction.

“Discussing a real world problem with the help of a whiteboard is [thumbs-up emoji],” reads the “tl:dr” section beneath. “Solving basic CS questions, technical puzzles, brainteasers (with or without a whiteboard) is [thumbs-down emoji].”

Companies listed (so far) include Basecamp, Instacart, Netflix Enterprise Platforms, Slack, and Thread. Instead of a whiteboard interview, these firms may offer take-home exercises, pair-programming challenges, and coding sessions with senior team members.

That doesn’t mean whiteboard interviews are fading away anytime soon. But for recruiters and hiring managers attempting to hire the best tech talent, evaluating other interviewing styles may ultimately prove beneficial—and make some candidates a lot happier.

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